Wednesday, December 30, 2015

New movie review: The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass in the western survival saga The Revenant

It is rare that I am left speechless after a film. I might not have a lot to say about a bad movie, or I might need time to gather my thoughts after a great one, but I pretty much always have something to say. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, however, left me absolutely without words. It is a densely packed, gorgeously realized, elliptically told story of survival and vengeance in the Old American West, but every time I sit to ponder it – as I have done almost without end now in the day and a half since seeing it – new elements cry out for consideration.

The certainties are these: Iñárritu, who won three Academy Awards last year for writing, directing, and producing Birdman, has made another impossibly grand work of art; Leonardo DiCaprio, already one of the finest actors of his generation, has delivered a career-topping performance; director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, who has won the last two Oscars for cinematography, has somehow found new ways to expand the visual language of film; and never has there been told on screen a more harrowing or epic tale of revenge than that of Hugh Glass.

Glass is a frontiersman hired by Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) to guide his fur-trapping expedition up the Missouri River. They start off with a crew dozens strong, but after repeated attacks by the native Arikara tribe, they are down to just 10 men. Among them are Glass’ son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). To avoid the Arikara, who know the river well, they set out on an overland route hundreds of miles to a U.S. Army fort where they can find relief.

Along the way, while out alone and hunting for game, Glass stumbles upon a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs. Glass is mauled in one of the most vicious and brutal attacks I have ever seen. The bear methodically tears away at Glass’ legs, chest, hands, back, neck, and face, and in a final insult, even when Glass manages to kill the bear, it falls dead on top of him, pinning him to the ground. When his traveling companions find him, he is gushing blood from just about every part of his body and his legs are broken. They reasonably conclude he will die, but as long as he is breathing, they vow to carry him.

As the terrain grows increasingly unnavigable, Glass’ broken body becomes more of a burden. Fitzgerald and Bridger, along with Hawk, agree to stay behind, wait for him to die, and give him a proper burial. Fitzgerald’s impatience, however, leads him to kill Hawk, lie to Bridger about an impending Arikara attack, and attempt to bury Glass alive. He succeeds in all these goals, but alas, Glass has no plans to die and sets out on shattered bones and festering wounds across 200 miles of frozen earth to seek his revenge.

The film is based on the Michael Punke novel of the same name, which itself is based on a heavily fictionalized account of the real Glass’ life. Iñárritu and co-writer Mark Smith’s screenplay sticks fairly close to the source material, which is a smart move given the unreliable nature of tales from the Old West. Glass is the kind of historical figure people tell tall tales about, a Paul Bunyan type who certainly existed but may not have been as great as the stories. By freeing themselves from the burden of history, Iñárritu and Smith are able to focus on the universal traits of human nature they are keen to explore.

Glass goes through more pain and suffering – both physical and emotional – in his journey than any of us is likely to experience in a lifetime. In this way, The Revenant is a dark testament to the spirit of man, but at the same time, it is a reminder of the indomitability of nature. Every character in this film is at the mercy of the natural world – the frigid temperatures, the rushing rivers, the jagged rocks, the animal kingdom, etc. For as invested as we become in the human concerns and trials of Glass, Iñárritu and editor Stephen Mirrione are quick always to remind us of the natural surroundings, ever-present and eternal.

Emmanuel Lubezki's gorgeous photography in The Revenant.
At more than two-and-a-half hours, The Revenant is long, but it earns every second of that runtime by offering the audience the chance to bask in its stillness, its quiet, and its beauty. In one of the most gorgeous shots of the year, we witness DiCaprio trudging through the snow toward his destination, and the camera pulls back to reveal a sea of pristine white ground. He is moving, but he is not going anywhere. His purpose is clear to him, but against this backdrop, it seems much smaller. He seems much smaller.

Iñárritu and Lubezki’s compositions make this point again and again in wide shots that establish the vastness of the world and in close-ups that demonstrate the havoc that world wreaks on the characters’ faces and bodies, not to mention their spirits. Lubezki has a facility for capturing thematic resonance with stirring imagery. His camera movements as ever are swift, fluid, and never without purpose, but here he finds magic even when he lets the camera linger on the embers of a fire floating up to the heavens, the leaves of trees rustling, or a boat floating along a foggy river. In a word, it is mesmerizing.

On the whole, Iñárritu and his collaborators have created the ultimate sensory experience – from Lubezki’s awe-inspiring photography to Jack Fisk’s world-building production design to the sound department’s remarkable sonic landscape. Every piece of the puzzle reveals something special, unique, and wondrous about what The Revenant ultimately is, and perhaps the most important piece to fall into place is the acting.

The idea that DiCaprio is chasing an Academy Award has taken on a life of its own, and it seems true that if he cannot win an Oscar for this performance this year, then he may never win one. However, DiCaprio is a multi-millionaire philanthropist and world-famous, widely respected actor with a dream life most of us could not imagine. A little gold statue is not going to change any of that. This makes it all the more impressive then that he seems hell bent on stretching the boundaries of his considerable gifts and plumbing the depths of every character that comes his way.

Tom Hardy in The Revenant.
He embodies Glass in all the ways it is possible to become another person. Movie stars often have trouble disappearing into roles, leaving audiences impressed but not moved. DiCaprio has even used this quality to his advantage in a number of parts. In The Revenant, however, there is not one moment where we are seeing anything but Glass, and as DiCaprio transforms, we are transported into his world. Even apart from the technical skill and dedication of learning two native languages and eating raw bison liver, DiCaprio delivers a performance of raw spiritual intensity that belongs to the ages.

Off in the other half of the story, Hardy, Poulter, and Gleeson bring the same level of energy and emotional acuity to their smaller, supporting roles. Hardy is particularly good as Fitzgerald, the antagonist who sets most of this bloody saga in motion. Fitzgerald is a grizzled man of the mountains as much as Glass, but he is blinded by greed and an overwhelming instinct for self-preservation. Hardy expertly brings this out in his mannerisms, his inflections, and his general sense of being.

The Revenant is an all-encompassing feat of filmmaking. It is about resiliency and frailty, vengeance and forgiveness, death and resurrection. It is meditative but propulsive, grisly but gorgeous, audacious but restrained. From Iñárritu to DiCaprio to Lubezki to Fisk to Mirrione to Hardy and everyone else on this production, the film is evidence of a group of talented individuals creating art at the absolute heights of their powers. At this point, I have spent more than 1,300 words describing this film, and I have only scratched the surface of its impact – because sometimes, there are no words.

See it? Yes.

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